March 24, 2016
Donald Trump’s wife is hot. Ted Cruz’s wife is not. There’s more to it than that, but this is our non-Brussels news cycle topic for the second half of the week. The Donald chooses the news and this is what he’s chosen.
How did we get here? As usual, Trump didn’t start the fire, but did throw gasoline on it. Liz Mair and the Make America Awesome PAC did. Melania Trump did plenty of modelling in her day, some of it suggestive. That’s sort of what models do.
Utah doesn’t like Trump very much. The Church of Latter Day Saints isn’t really in line with his shtick. Attempting to ensure Cruz would clear the 50% barrier to sweep the delegates, attempting to push Trump’s support as low as possible, the PAC ran a series of ads designed to remind the Mormon voters of Utah they would prefer a less revealing First Lady.
The other subtext was Melania as the submissive wife, an attempt to play on some of the issues The Donald is having with female voters. So that was the plan. Not sure if it made any difference, but Cruz got close to 70% of the vote, while Trump was held under 15%.
We know there are a pile of PACs floating around, but there are several types. There are PACs who are legally allowed to coordinate with the candidate. These are separate from the campaign, but can at least directly talk to it. In exchange, there are a few more fundraising restrictions.
Another type, the most common, is one that is dedicated to supporting a particular candidate, but is not allowed to coordinate with the campaign. There are ways around this of course, however it does limit the ability of the PAC to work surgically to match the candidate’s immediate strategy.
The dumpster fire that was Jeb’s Right to Rise PAC is one of these. Because of the non-contact rule, they can bring in money however they want and only need to disclose the source of funds a couple times a year.
As we argued a couple months ago, these are the most overrated assets out there. PACs pay significantly more than campaigns for the same ad time. If you hear a PAC dropped $10 million on something, it doesn’t buy what you might think.
More importantly, the lack of overt coordination limits the ability of candidate supporting PACs to produce very strong ads. They tend to play it somewhat safe, somewhat generic, and particularly in the DVR age, often don’t completely register.
Make America Awesome is none of the above. They are an anti-Trump PAC which not only is not coordinating with a campaign, but doesn’t support a particular one. Cruz was the better bet in Utah, so they told voters to pick him.
It’s the worst of all worlds. They went after Trump more recklessly than a candidate-affiliated PAC would have. They still attached the name of a candidate to their ads. The ads are not going down in history as some of the best executed.
Even if the ads helped, the result shows Cruz would have won easily without them. Odds are very good if he was given the option to approve/disapprove prior to going live, he would have spiked them.
Trump wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this pass him by. He swung back at Cruz, blaming him for the ads and threatening to “spill the beans” on Heidi. At first, this didn’t seem like a big deal, maybe a 3.2 on the Trump Scale.
In pre-2016, pre-Trump context, a big deal, but we’re now back at 19th century levels of invective. This isn’t either of the Andrew Jackson-John Quincy Adams contests yet. The Wife Wars are nothing compared to what was said about Rachel Jackson, but we’re all recalibrating by the day.
The Donald does a lot of retweeting. It allows him to forward stuff that’s even a bit strong for him, while being able to say “hey, it wasn’t me, I’m just sharing.” Someone in the Trumpverse decided a little compare and contrast between Heidi and Melania was in order.
By any objective standard, Trump has the better looking wife. Again, she was a supermodel. Ted’s spouse is on leave from her career at Goldman Sachs. The Donald is a billionaire, Cruz is somewhat visually challenged.
If you only knew the above information, you would expect Mrs. Trump to look better than Mrs. Cruz. If you are trying to maximize your point and compare better than average photos of the supermodel with the worst possible photos of the normal person….
Technically Trump didn’t start this. Technically, Trump didn’t produce the contrast tweets. Cruz had nothing to do with the Melania ad. None of this matters in the Trump media vortex. As usual, I’m simultaneously horrified and impressed beyond recognition.
As is the usual MO, Trump forced Cruz to react to a situation he did nothing to create. He left him with two unsavory options. Either do relatively little, try to blow this off, and look like you aren’t standing up for your wife, seeming embarrassed she isn’t as visually appealing as Trump’s, or risk getting in the gutter with someone who lives there.
Cruz often struggles with his pitch when Trump creates a scene. He’s walking that fine line. Don’t look like a wimp, don’t risk crossing the line like many think Marco Rubio did. Trump was fighting with Ed Koch in the New York tabloids when Cruz was in elementary school.
None of these candidates have anywhere near his experience, none have the brand to allow for and soak up going too far or pulling back too soon. Wisconsin votes in less than two weeks. Cruz absolutely HAS to win.
I’m 1,000% certain this is not the topic Cruz wanted to cover today. He’d much rather focus on assigning partial responsibility for Brussels to Hillary Clinton, rather than giving her ammunition to use on convincing centrist voters the GOP candidates aren’t serious, aren’t ready to act as commander-in-chief.
With all that going against him, Cruz responded very well. If you’ve followed my commentary on Ted, I’m usually fairly critical. He’s done a poor job moving beyond his base, and hasn’t yet given enough Republicans a reason to vote for him instead of against Trump.
That’s why John Kasich still exists, even if he knows his odds are narrow. Properly executed, Cruz’s response over the next few days is a way to pull those undecided, anti-Trump voters completely over to his side.
Cruz was indignant. Check.
Cruz called Trump a sniveling coward. Check.
Cruz called Heidi his best friend and the love of his life. Check.
Cruz said real men aren’t afraid of strong women. Check.
Cruz said Trump was acting out of weakness, getting scared because of the margin in Utah. Check.
He’s covered many of these themes before. It appears the Cruzes are a very close couple. He usually claims a Trump salvo is because The Donald is scared about poll numbers or recent primary results.
It’s not the first time he’s said family members are off limits. A Washington Post cartoon about his children prompted a similar reaction a few months ago.
The difference is Cruz was legitimately angry this time. An overly rehearsed Ted Cruz isn’t very effective outside of his core supporters. A more authentic Ted is. No Texan who loves his wife is ok with someone targeting her.
This was a better, more effective, more appropriate response than Jeb’s when he asked Trump to apologize to his wife for comments about her Mexican heritage and stood there impotently when The Donald refused.
Cruz isn’t out of the woods yet. The reason Trump almost always wins these duels is endurance. This is what he does, it’s not what the others are used to. A candidate may hang with him for a day or two, but Trump will escalate things until his opponent ultimately backs down.
That’s what happened to Little Marco. Rubio made two mistakes, neither of which were deciding to trade insults with Trump. The first problem is he went a little too far into the gutter. Calling him a con man was smart. Jabbing at him in debates was a good idea too.
Small hands was a bit over the line. Cruz hasn’t gone there yet, nor does he plan to. The biggest error was stopping. As soon as Rubio stopped talking about wet pants, he slowed and then ended discussion of Trump University and Trump conning the country.
In the final debate, Rubio backed off completely. A couple days prior, he began expressing his regret for some of his words. Ugh. If you’re going to play, you can’t back down, you can’t stop. It made Marco look weak.
Cruz is in a fight he didn’t choose at a time he didn’t choose. That’s done and out of his control. But he can use it to win the nomination. The voters of Wisconsin know damn well they’re voting for the next GOP nominee.
They know if Trump wins Wisconsin, he’s virtually unstoppable. It’s the moment when the voters who will decide the primary, those beyond Trump’s smaller than normal core of Wisconsin support, those either deciding between Trump and Cruz or Cruz and Kasich, ask themselves, “do we really want to do this?”
If Cruz backs down, the answer is either yes, or no, but maybe Kasich can stop him, Ted sure as hell can’t. However, if he can keep calling Trump weak, keep calling him a coward, keep saying he’s not a real man, perhaps he can make The Donald go way too far for anyone beyond his most devoted fans.
If you’ve heard Melania Trump speak for half a minute, it’s clear she’s nobody’s submissive wife. Trump is very clear about this whenever the topic comes up, and he’s probably not exaggerating this time.
His surrogates will blanket the airwaves with anecdotes about all the female executives he’s championed over the years. He’s given his daughter Ivanka plenty of responsibility and raised her to kick ass.
No matter. He insulted another man’s wife. If Cruz can’t make this work for him, he’s never going to win the nomination. Hang on Ted, you’ll need to ride this for more than 8 seconds.
NOTE: Apparently, Trump was going to spill the beans on Heidi Cruz’s issues with depression about a decade ago. The Donald has a good memory and likely recalls this was an issue for Michael and Kitty Dukakis back in the day. It’s 2016. While I’m sure Mrs. Cruz would prefer to keep this to herself, it’s 2016.